As we moved into Editing our Opinion Essays last week, I realized my students and I needed to improve our word choice. Clearly, many of us had quickly drafted our essays using simplistic words that simply could be better. I chose a strategy that I typically show students when we need better details in our narratives, The Tell-Show. On a hunch, I thought this strategy would provide us with a quick fix for Better Words.
Ditch Those "Crappy" Words for Better Ones
I chose a paragraph from my draft and explained that I simply wasn't happy with some of the words I'd chosen to use in my first draft. I re-read one of my paragraphs and underlined the words that I knew could be better. Then, I picked one sentence in this paragraph, wrote it on the board, and labeled it Original Sentence:
Every summer, I remember Mom Mom (my grandmother) and Sugar (my grandfather) would get out of the heat and travel to places like Alaska, Colorado, or Oregon.
I then spent a couple of minutes talking about how the word "get" is a Telling word; a word that simply doesn't give my readers a clear picture of the idea I'm trying to convey in this sentence. Instead, I explained I needed a Showing word; a word that allows my readers to visualize what I'm trying to explain them.
I added that I didn't want to bore my readers with simple words that weren't very descriptive. In addition to sharing clear ideas with my readers, I also want to keep their interest. As an Editor revisiting the words I'd chosen for this sentence, I realized that if I wanted to keep reader interest, I needed to do better.
I quickly set up the Tell-Show you see in the picture here. (The words in red are "crappy" words my students found in their own writing). Underneath the Tell column, I wrote my sub-par word "get" and then I came up with Showing words on the right side. Of course, my students couldn't help but give me some ideas as well, so I also included them. Eventually, I decided the word "dash" fit best within the context of my sentence. I then re-wrote my sentence like this:
Every May, Mom Mom and Sugar would dash out of the sweltering Arizona heat by traveling to Alaska, Colorado, or Oregon.
As an accountability piece, you'll notice in the bottom picture I included Sentence Starters that I asked my students to share after they changed one word. Each student had to share the original word and the changed word with the entire class. For more on Sentence Starters, see Teaching Academic Vocabulary, Kate Kinsella.
One Changed Word Leads to Other Changes
An unexpected consequence of changing one word led to changes in other words in my sentence as well. These changes weren't forced, they were simply a natural part of what many experienced writers do every day: Edit for Better Words. This "natural" process allowed me to add a mini-lesson within my lesson. Simply changing one word allowed me the opportunity to re-read the rest of my sentence. This change forced me to look at the other words within the sentence, which helped me re-draft a new sentence that "sounds" better. A sentence I believe my readers will be more interested in reading.
Better Words = Better Writing
Once I'd modeled the process of Editing for Better words for my students, I allowed them some time to practice. I asked them to follow the steps I'd showed them on a new sheet of paper titled Editing for Better Words. At first, I had them practice with one "crappy" word in one sentence. Once they mastered this, I had them fix all of the "crappy" words in the paragraph where this sentence was located, and, eventually, in the other paragraphs in their essays.
Naturally, we offered Better Words to each other, talked about the importance of re-reading each sentence with the changes to check whether or not these words fit within the context of the sentence, and we completed all of this work without dictionaries or thesauri. While I know the importance of such resources (as do some of my students), I wanted to show them how spending a little bit of extra time and thought would provide them with the Better Words we were after. I also wanted to show them that they had the skill to change their words without having a "crutch" like a dictionary or a thesaurus.
I'm not trying to denounce such resources, I'm trying to impress upon my students the skills required to produce quality writing: re-reading, re-thinking, re-writing, re-working words to create better sentences, better paragraphs, and Better Words.
Their published drafts were due yesterday, and I'm impressed with the Better Words I'm seeing in their writing. More importantly, as a reader, I'm finding that their essays not only "sound" better, they're more interesting to read as well. My hunch in using the Tell-Show has provided us with a solid foundation we can build upon each time we tackle Editing. A foundation we'll build on as we progress into more sophisticated techniques for improved words.
If you have a tip for how you improve the word choice in your writing, or a strategy you've used in helping students use Better Words in their writing, please leave a comment.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at email@example.com.